5e total conversions and game balance

On a whim I backed a Kickstarter for a cyberpunk 5e “total conversion”. It got me thinking about how you do deep system balance.

Somewhere there has to be a set of rules – a spreadsheet, a Perl script, something – that TSR and now WotC uses to work out game balance.

There’s back-of-the-envelope stuff in the 5e DMG, buried in the back (the part no one reads, I imagine – but you should, it’s some of the best stuff!). But, it’s very abstract and intended more to just get you into the balance ballpark.

So for example, what I’m wondering about is a small piece of math like:

  1. For every spell level, base damage is 1d10.
  2. automatic hits drop damage to d8 per level
  3. for every 3 point save DC interval above 10, add +1 to damage

And so on. Some sort of balance algorithm.

A friend of mine tried once to reverse engineer this; he had a Perl script and a spreadsheet. He got pretty far into it; mostly enough to decide what he had worked well enough for his own games. Whatver math didn’t work out, he’d just eyeball and improvise in the context of the session.

TSR, WotC, and other D&D publishers don’t get to do that; you can’t improve printed materials. So it stands to reason there’s at least some way to 1)assure balance before press and 2)verify empirically (better than a guess) the balance of submitted materials. Right?

My eternal quest to “fix” D&D

I’ve been playing TTRPGs for, oh, 37 years or something. I was exposed to Tolkien as a child, via the Rankin and Bass movies, and shortly thereafter a trip to a hobby shop exposed me to this strange board (?) game with lead figurines and weird dice and hobbits and dragons.

I was not allowed to play this strange game. Not because of the “Satanic Panic” of the time. Instead, my parents – inveterate spendthrifts – easily spied it as an activity that required money, which to them was far more pernicious and awful.

So I’d go to the hobby shop with my mom – I was, like, 8 – and sit and read the manuals while she shopped for craft supplies.

(I suppose I should explain to any younger readers that at the time, a “hobby shop” often contained a strange mix of what would now be separate Hobby Lobby, comic book, and toy stores. One part of the store was silk flowers, another was model rockets, still another needlepoint and fabric, and then a little corner with D&D books, minis, and paint. Also at the time, my main source of comic books was the grocery store.)

Then, I’d go home, and attempt to transcribe what I’d read into some meaningful semblance of a game. I didn’t have polyhedral dice, so I’d try to work out how to make it all work with the 5 6-siders I’d taken from the family Yahtzee game. I didn’t have minis, either, so I used army men.

It was an exceptionally unplayable game, but having never actually played D&D, I didn’t really know that. It was one of the first time I sat down and tried to create a mechanical system. I was hooked.

I’d eventually go on to play real D&D. I remember one DM thought hobbits only had 1 arm, because they couldn’t wield 2-handed weapons. Another couldn’t figure out THAC0 so he just rolled the first die at hand and made the player guess if the result was odd or even.

Over the years, I’ve probably seen hundreds of homegrown and commercial optional rules for D&D; mostly combat and spell casting, but also weird things like random weather tables and managing ones castle.

D&D is an at times frustrating mix of game and simulation. If you’re into that sort of thing you can do an incredible deep-dive on just what all that means, but if you only want the nickel-tour version: a game lets you survive what looks like dozens of sword blows, falls from a great height, or impacts from massive objects; a simulation carefully details just how incredibly fucking dead you are from just one good sword wound (or, how if you survive it, you lose use of a limb or whatever, in other words, permanently maimed).

The other day I was thinking about how to bolt on a system to core D&D combat that allowed for “glancing blows”; that “hits” should be split into solid and meager hits. The damage system doesn’t really allow for that well; if you have a sword with a magic effect, it fires if you do 1 points of damage or 10. And don’t get me started on armor classes and hit points …

When it suddenly occurred to me. I have a bookshelf (and now, digital one) laden with games systems that aren’t by-God D&D, with often novel mechanics to resolve these and many other “problems” with D&D. It’s not just that we want a particular flavor of fantasy world; we want the mechanical resolution to reflect that world.

I think back to the odd-or-even DM, and how while I was perpetually annoyed at “why bother having a magic sword if it’s all just a 50/50 chance to do anything”, what was fun was not the deep, careful, intellectual manipulation of a mathematical/mechanical system, but the game itself. Suspense, action, chaos, heroism, adventure, and discovery; that was the fun. The fun with maths what just what I did when I wasn’t actually playing D&D with my friends.

So I’ll get these ideas, and think, this would be fun for 5E, but, ugh, hit points. But I think now that’s wrong. Mechanics are fun and important, but should never outweigh the value of the game itself.

Programmers lose sight of the business value of the programs we write, instead thinking about the elegance of the algorithms or the utility of some set of libraries. I think I’ve spent a lot of time losing sight of the game itself by spending my idle time thinking about the simulation.

Saved you a click: White Supremacy pin-ups

https://www.topic.com/the-secret-weapons-of-the-far-right

  1. Your lame friends mom
  2. “Vajeen is like sleeve of wizard”
  3. Your sisters weird friend who you sorta wanted to hook up with but are glad you didn’t
  4. Your sisters sorority sister who everyone hated but has 10x the Instagram followers they do
  5. Cathy from HR that everyone hates
  6. Your sisters kinda hot friend who you also wanted to hook up with but now you are SUPER glad you didn’t
  7. An evil witch?
  8. Someone please euthanize that poor creature and also help the bird
  9. Your moms bridge group
  10. Your sisters former friend who went weirdo goth after buying ONE The Cure album
  11. My aunt and uncle, probably

ooh, I think I know the answer to this one

Via Orange Site, we have “Questions“. Specifically, this one:

Will end-user applications ever be truly programmable? If so, how?

Emacs, Smalltalk, Genera, and VBA embody a vision of malleable end-user computing: if the application doesn’t do what you want, it’s easy to tweak or augment it to suit your purposes. Today, however, end-user software increasingly operates behind bulletproof glass. This is especially true in the growth areas: mobile and web apps. Furthermore, not only is it getting harder to manipulate the application logic itself, but it’s also becoming harder to directly manipulate your data. With Visual Basic, you can readily write a quick script to calculate some calendar analytics with Outlook. To do the same with Google Calendar is a very laborious chore.

End-user computing is becoming less a bicycle and more a monorail for the mind.

As a consequence, we need ever more domain-specific software. Rather than use universal tools for handling charts and for manipulating data, we tend to use separate analytics packages for every conceivable application. This is not all bad. Domain-specific tools can maximize ease-of-use and help amortize the cost of complex, specialized functionality. Sublime’s built-in ⌘-T works better than every third-party Emacs package. Still, despite these benefits, the popularity of macros and browser plugins strongly suggest that users are smart and want more control.

Should we just give up on our earlier visions of empowered users or is a better equilibrium possible?

And I think I have at least one possible answer, so here goes.

Continue reading “ooh, I think I know the answer to this one”

iOS remains a cesspool of annoyance, but I can’t leave

I’ve been using iPhones since the very first one; I had one in my hot little hands a mere 2 weeks after it debuted. So I’ve seen nearly every shitshow come and go. I have an extremely high confidence that most egregious problems will be resolved, because they always have been, and it remains in Apple’s best interest to continue to fix the big problems.

The small problems, however, remain from release to release. I’m not sure they’ll get around to fixing them. Or, possibly, I’m “lucky” and the only person in the world with these problems.

Continue reading “iOS remains a cesspool of annoyance, but I can’t leave”

ICRPG Stress/Sanity: Take 2

The rough draft was a little far afield of the core ICRPG mechanics; it works great as a direct port, but it’s not ICRPG.

So, take 2:

  1. When you take stress, roll vs WIS (base difficulty 12)
  2. if you fail, you take all stress inflicted by the attack.
  3. If you succeed, roll d10 effort. Final “stress damage” is attack – effort.

Loot and other factors may protect against stress, offering a higher effort die.

The 0-100/101-200 scale and rules remain the same as before.

think that fixes the basic mechanic to be closer to ICRPG than before, while retaining the same kind of “attack/resist” system.